The Riggs Report: A career spent defining California
Pollster Mervin Field spent decades taking our measure of political thought
During my years in the newsroom, the Field Poll was a well-known yardstick of how well — or how poorly — political campaigns were faring in California’s public eye. But it was also common for younger staffers to think the name referred to polling work done “in the field,” having no idea the survey’s name referred to its founder.
Mervin Field, who died Monday at the age of 94, started polling Californians in the years just following World War II. He learned his trade from pollster George Gallup as a youngster in New Jersey, and after service in the Merchant Marine, a naval auxiliary, Field set up shop in California.
Field’s surveys, first called the California Poll, included consumer surveys for business clients. But the trademark political surveys became his best-known product, and in fact developed into one of the most prominent, well-regarded public opinion surveys in the nation. They were fodder for campaign consultants and for political reporters as a convenient way of taking a campaign’s measure.
Although highly regarded and remarkably accurate, the Field Poll did not have a universal cheering squad. I heard plenty of complaints over the years from political operatives who felt the surveys led primarily to coverage of the “horse race,” and that instead of just measuring opinion, they had an influence on election outcomes.
I talked to Field about that in 2006 in his San Francisco office for a profile piece on KCRA. Although retired from the daily management of the polling service, he was a regular presence; a political junkie who loved to tell anecdotes.
Field told me he was used to suspicion from those who questioned his objectivity, and ruefully recounted some of the comments he received.
“Mervin Field is cockeyed, he’s leftist, he’s a Democrat, he’s only polling in Northern California, he’s not getting a good cross-section,” Field said.
Field also famously called it wrong in the 1982 California race for governor. He told reporters in Los Angeles that his pre-election canvass indicated that L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley would beat Attorney General George Deukmejian by 7 percentage points. But Deukmejian squeaked out a narrow win, based on absentee ballot counts.
Field owned up to the mistake. It was that sense of accountability, along with a reputation for impartiality and transparency, that led to such high regard in the media, political and academic worlds.
Field’s world dealt with numbers, but also how to interpret those numbers to make sense of what California voters were thinking. In that sense, Field’s pioneering work played a key role in the writing of California’s post-war history.